It’s Time to Stop Being “Data Driven”

Do you remember when the word “synergy” lost all meaning?

A great word, yes, but people overused it for so long that all its power was drained out. Eventually, the term became a living joke; a word you couldn’t use without irony; a key square in a game of Buzzword Bingo.

Well, we’ve arrived at that cultural moment with “data driven.”

It’s not that the term has lost its meaning due to overuse. It’s that the concept was bad in the first place.

Now, don’t get me wrong:

This is not an argument doubting the power and necessity of Data in modern marketing. Its sheer volume, and our ability to mine it for insights, has absolutely transformed the effectiveness of our practice over the past 25 years. But our use of Data is far from beyond challenge or reproach. In fact, we’re only scratching the surface of what we can do with it.

We’re only scratching the surface of what we can do with it.

Not the other way around.

Data is information, not some omniscient magical force. The very term “data driven” reflects an implicit belief that Data is our Master. When Data is driving you and your organization, you’ve relinquished control to it. And in so doing, you may have unconsciously boxed yourself into a frightened corner where, in day-to-day practice, you need Data’s permission to make key marketing decisions.

Let me offer an alternative ideology:

You don’t really want to be “data driven.” You want to be data informed.

Remember what Henry Ford said about faster horses?

In marketing, we use Data to understand audience preferences so we can better engage and persuade them. But just because your audience says they prefer Ad #1 over Ad #2 (via a split test), that doesn’t mean Ad #1 is the end-all-be-all. It only means that Ad #1 is the thing they like best right now.

It’s your fastest horse.

Our job as marketers is to find new ways — never before seen ways — to beat the fastest horse. And Data will never deliver that to you. Data can only show you signals to help you create something that will transcend that horse.

But you have to create it yourself. That’s what the human mind does best.

When you assume a data-informed approach, the insights you find can yield powerful hypotheses. Hypotheses that can be tested, validated, and then leveraged to unearth new creative solutions.

To wit:

About ten years ago, Subaru stumbled on the fact that 66 percent of its owners have a pet, and of them, 71 percent own a dog. So, they drew the broad hypothesis that featuring dogs in branded content might be appealing to their audience. They tested it, and the hypothesis proved true. We all know what happened next. Dogs have been prominently featured in Subaru campaigns ever since (including the beloved “Dog tested. Dog approved.” campaign).

The point? It’s time to drop the concept of being “data driven.” Don’t wait for data to give you license to try something new.

Be data informed, instead. Draw educated hypotheses. Get creative. Take smart risks. Test. Then, let the data tell you if you were right or not.


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